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  • Case Study: Websites, Counselors Geared to Special Populations

    Organizational Structure
    Students of color sit in their college classroom.

    TAGS: technology, diversity and inclusion, case study, ethics, principles

    Scenario: A career center wants to do more to attract underrepresented students, both to the office and the website. The staff holds a brainstorming session with a focus group of minority students. One idea that comes out of the session is developing a specific set of pages within the center’s main site to feature resources, employment, and internship opportunities for students of color. A staff member discovers that many other career centers list web resources for students of color in the job-search resource list. Another suggestion is to hire a staff member who is either African-American or Latino to handle minority students only. In this way, when minority students walk into the office, they will feel that there is someone "like them” who understands their needs.

    Questions: What ethical issues are raised by these ideas? Does it make a difference if the proposed web page is accessible to all students even though the resources are directed to students of color? What about job postings? Is it equitable to have staff aligned with specific student populations (e.g. veterans, athletes, disabled, and more) as specialists? What other options are there to attract minority students to the career center’s programs and services?

    Analysis: If minority students access the career center’s services and resources in lesser percentages than their representation in the overall student body, the career center should definitely take steps to address the imbalance. The suggestions generated by the focus group are good starting points for consideration, although they should be thought through carefully.

    Underrepresented students—who may include students of color, first-generation students, students with disabilities, student veterans, LGBT students, or women students, depending on the institution—may face unique challenges when exploring careers or launching a job search. For example, the professional ranks of many industries are still predominantly white and/or male, particularly at the leadership levels. Students of color and women students may wonder how welcome they would feel in these industries and what support they could expect in overcoming barriers. LGBT students may have questions about the openness of work settings to expressions of identity. First-generation students may have had less exposure to professions that require a college degree, while student veterans may be unsure of the value employers will place on their military experience. Students may not be aware of the career center’s ability to address such questions and concerns.

    Many employers make special outreach efforts to underrepresented students as part of their recruiting strategy, hoping to build awareness of their opportunities and commitment to inclusion. These relationship-building activities make a significant difference in whether students perceive an organization as welcoming. Employers will initially look to the career center to help make those connections or plug into existing programs that reach underrepresented students.

    Regarding the career center’s staff composition, it is appropriate to acknowledge that minority students seeking assistance from the center pay attention to representation. If they encounter a diverse staff, they are more likely to believe their needs can be met.

    Principles: Principle 3 states, “Ensure equitable access by proactively addressing inclusivity and diversity.” Principle 4 states, “Comply with laws associated with local, state and federal entities, including but not limited to EEO compliance, immigration and affirmative action.”

    Options for Resolution: Addressing concerns and needs of special populations is consistent with the Principles for Ethical Professional Practice. Alerting students (and other constituents) via the career center website about services that match their needs makes sense. It is important, however, to consider as broad a definition of diversity as possible and take into account the norms of language used elsewhere on campus. In other words, if the term “minority students” is used, do all students understand what that encompasses? What about other categories of diversity?

    Most campuses have an array of support services focused on students of color, LGBT students, and first generation college students. In the 1970s and ’80s, many institutions established women’s resource centers, and during the last two decades, there has been a growth in programs to encourage women in academic fields traditionally dominated by men (science, engineering, business, etc.). Recent increases in international student enrollment, particularly at the undergraduate level, have expanded the services directed at acclimating and supporting students from other countries. The rise in enrollment of nontraditional students, most prominently student veterans, has also spurred an expansion of support units and programs.

    Arguably, any student population recognized by the institution as needing focused support— evidenced by the existence of special units or programs—warrants attention in the career center’s diversity efforts.

    The new sections of the website should highlight the center’s diversity programs and services, but the career center should take care not to imply an exclusivity reserved only for students fitting a particular diversity category. While programming geared to special populations may be developed, it is understood that all students are welcome to participate. The guiding principle should be inclusivity—striving to ensure that all students may benefit from the broader resources and opportunities provided.

    The question of whether the new web pages should showcase opportunities such as internships, fellowships, or full-time positions that appear to exclusively target students from specific backgrounds is one that must be answered by the individual institution. It may be preferable to encourage students to look for unique opportunities posted in the system rather than sequestering them in the website. A rule of thumb is to avoid segregating opportunities into distinct categories according race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other attributes. Similarly, “parallel programming” should be avoided. For example, creating a workshop titled “Interviewing Skills for Students of Color” may suggest that the standard interviewing skills workshop is geared toward white students. For some institutions, this would be a violation of state mandates. This is different, however, from responding to a request from an ethnicity-focused student organization for an interviewing skills workshop, which is a means of fostering inclusivity, assuming the center would also honor the request from other student organizations.

    How much assistance may or should the career center give to outside entities seeking to recruit students from specific backgrounds? On most campuses, it is not a violation of policies to alert students about opportunities that may not be open to all students. For example, the center may post on its website information about a conference for women interested in business leadership roles. However, sending an e-mail exclusively to women students—as opposed to all students—announcing the conference may be a violation. It very much depends on the institution’s policies and the EEO laws of the state.

    What about hiring staff of a particular race or ethnicity to work exclusively with students of that same race or ethnicity? First, there is the issue of EEO compliance. No employer, including the career center, may use a person’s racial or ethnic status as a criterion for hiring. This is quite different from requiring multi-cultural competencies to effectively work with a diverse group of students, which is a criterion that should apply to all advisers in the career center. Second, it is equally problematic to designate a specific staff member to work with students of color. This implies that other career advisers are not responsible for meeting the needs of non-majority students, and it begins to segregate the staff into race and ethnicity categories. This is different from designating specific staff members to serve as liaisons to different diversity support units on campus. Determining which advisers should be matched with which liaison assignment should be based on interest, knowledge, and expertise, not on the adviser’s race, ethnicity, or other demographic characteristic.

    In short, all staff should possess fundamental intercultural competencies, and the unique attributes and perspectives each individual staff member possesses should be leveraged for the benefit of the whole team. It is imperative that the career center reflect diversity and inclusion in its staff composition, which means being proactive when conducting searches to fill open positions.

    Other Considerations: Perhaps the most effective way to increase minority student use of the career center is through partnership with the diversity support units on campus.

    As suggested above, liaison roles may be established for designated career advisers with units and programs that directly administer support to specific student populations. Staff in these units offer guidance and mentorship, and they typically develop relationships of trust with many individual students. If career center staff become known to these units—and become familiar with the types of support they provide—a referral network will form that will likely have a greater impact than content on the website.

    Posted June 2017.

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